A review of the Channel 4 film "The Battle of Orgreave"
By Nat Richards
On Monday 19 November 2001 hundreds of guests and re-enactors attended the London premier of Hollywood Director Mike Figgis' one-hour film, The Battle of Orgreave, screened at the prestigious Odeon West End. This was followed up with special screenings at the Sheffield Shrowroom Cinema on 15 December.
The film tells the story of the violent miners' strike confrontation between Arthur Scargill's NUM and the police outside the BSC Coking plant at Orgreave, near Sheffield, on 18 June 1984, through interviews with participants and footage from the extraordinarily realistic live re-enactment in the village organised and directed by EventPlan on behalf of innovative arts production company Artangel.
It was the climactic clash of the bitter miners' strike with up to 5000 miners seeking to blockade the plant, defended by a similar number of police. What began as a peaceful protest soon turned nasty, eventually becoming a running fight through the main street of the village. With short-shield "snatch squads" used for the first time on mainland Britain, this was a major turning point in the policing of industrial relations.
Unlike the re-enactment, which was strictly non-political, Figgis' film views the strike very much from the miners' point of view. They are the true heroes whereas the police (as in reality) do not emerge from the film very well, cast as aggressive stooges of Figgis' true villain, Margaret Thatcher. Some of the interviews are harrowing, showing that the anguish of that hot day almost 18 years ago still lingers on, not just amongst the miners but their wives and even policemen who took part. Indeed, one of the most interesting participants featured is a local ex-police officer who whilst accepting that some fellow officers "lost it" and were on occasions brutal, there were reasons for this and clearly feels that the force were in many respects just as much victims of state control as the miners. Both sides behaved badly that day, both suffered, but the local communities were the real losers. Devastated by subsequent mine closures, they have never recovered.
Much of the film concerns the re-enactment itself, beginning with how it was organised and the way 800 diverse historical re-enactors and local extras were moulded together into one team, trained (including by real riot police officers) and rehearsed in just one day, followed less than 24 hours later by the re-enactment itself. That it all worked so flawlessly is both remarkable and a tribute to all who took part.
The battle sequences, complete with very convincing hand to hand fighting, look ferocious. Protestors scatter as the long police shield wall opens and mounted officers charge through. Massed officers in riot helmets drum their truncheons against the backs of their shields whilst enduring a barrage of missiles, then charge full pelt in pursuit of their tormentors, past a burning car. A local child, barely five years old, watches from an upstairs window and chants "The miners will never be defeated" (how wrong). Men fall to the ground, hit by flailing truncheons.
The re-enactment admirably captures the essence of a terrifying, bloody day in which scores of miners and police were injured and many of the former arrested on the very serious charge of riot (later dropped). The "battle tactics", uniforms and equipment of the police, together with the "look" of the miners and their response, are faithfully recreated in great detail, down to "Coal Not Dole" stickers on the miners' (period) clothing. If in future anyone needs stock footage of what a riot looked like in late 20th Century Britain, here it is.
Some of the key players in the re-enactment are featured, some not. The originator of the project, conceptual artist Jeremy Deller, explains why he wanted to recreate the battle as Art. Howard Giles, the event director, appears a number of times, helping to move the plot along and exuding professional calm. The re-enactors are portrayed as having a lot of fun without denigrating the very serious nature of the real confrontation. The miners clearly enjoy taking part, some considering it a little bizarre, yet cathartic. One re-enactor in the police shield wall - perhaps not experienced in recreated hand to hand combat - finds the advancing miners very intimidating, whilst another next him just thinks it's all brilliant.
Curiously, Arthur Scargill is hardly mentioned nor his re-enactment doppelganger (actor Simon Kirk) featured, although the latter recreated Scargill's famous and much photographed walk along the front of the police line. One can only wonder why, as this is rather like writing Napoleon out of the Battle of Waterloo. Without Scargill there would probably never had been an Orgreave confrontation, nor such a determined, well over the top police response. Perhaps Mike Figgis feels that Scargill is not an asset to "the cause". However, this omission is a weakness and can only aid the argument of those who feel the film is unfair to the police.
Some hand-held camera work is shaky and demonstrates the difficulty of crews trying to follow or anticipate live action where the moves are not rehearsed in detail first. However, it reflects the chaos of the real battle well.
There are some let downs. The action is never allowed to build up for long without yet another interview - inevitably in a quiet sitting room or office - interrupting. The grand climax of the real battle (and the re-enactment) - a spectacular full-scale charge to the cross roads in the middle of Orgreave by the mounted police, scattering miners in all directions - is hardly featured. Most of all, it is to be regretted that the post-re-enactment meeting on the battlefield between "police" and "miners", including genuinely emotional handshakes and greetings, is not mentioned at all. This is a pity, but the re-enactment aside, the film will bring to the nation's attention one of the most disturbing days in our recent history, already forgotten by most of Britain, yet impossible to forget for most who were there.
Footnote: The Battle of Orgreave was screened by Channel 4 at the prime time of 7.45pm on Sunday 20 October 2002. Was the programme accurate, or unfair to the police? Read Howard Giles' (hopefully completely objective) account of the events of 18 June 1984 and judge for yourself. Alternatively, find out how others saw the confrontation via the Orgreave links page.
On 18 October 2004 Historical Film Services director Howard Giles introduced a special screening of the Battle of Orgreave at UGC cinema, The Cornerhouse, 29 Foreman Street, Nottingham NG1 4AA and explained how his team recreated this climactic, violent confrontation of the 1984 miners strike on behalf of Jeremy Deller and Artangel Media. 800 extras took the roles of Police and miners directed in real time by Howard, whilst Mike Figgis filmed the action as it unfolded. Now fascinating and sometimes controversial film was shown on the big screen in October as part of the NOW Festival, staged by Nottingham City council and aiming to bring the best contemporary artistic practise to the people of Nottingham and beyond.
In December 2002, Jeremy Deller won the Turner Prize. Throughout the run up to the prize declaration great interest was shown in Jeremy's work, with the Battle of Orgreave noted as one of his best known projects.
Taken from the February/March 2002 issue of Skirmish magazine with kind permission of the editor.
"The Battle of Orgreave" is available in full on YouTube.